Saturday, December 31, 2011

Return to Sender

Every year, when December came by, me and my wife would grumble about the fact that we would soon need to buy greeting cards. To wish our friends and family, a happy new year and possibly, tell them something about the wonderful year that just went by. When we were not that busy, we would get customized stationary, and print our annual family bulletin on it -- we would let our cousins know, so that they could let their cousins know, how many diapers we went through, in that particular year, and, if our baby had new teeth -- since ours was the only one in the history of the world to have new teeth, ever. We were always sure that our cousins cared about the diapers and the teeth, they were our cousins after all.

Then, there were the greeting cards. In the earlier years, we would customize them with family pictures. Then, as things got busier, we would buy the ones that supposedly contributed to charity. And of course, when our cousins and their cousins would see that we were doing something for charity, our stock in their eyes would definitely go up, wouldn't it?

And then, there would be those years, when we would be scrambling till the end of the year to get other things done, and we would start sending our cards out, when we received the first ones in our mailbox. A couple of weeks after that, around the middle of January, we would get some cards back. And on those cards, prominently stamped would be a phrase that Elvis Presley helped etch down in the sands of time -- "return to sender." 

People move. Some get new jobs. Sometimes, some get new families. And sometimes, they move on to a better place, that we all have to go to -- some day. The people in the business of sending season's greetings, find out about  all these moves, when the postman brings the letters back in January. Letters, that remind them of Elvis, once more.

We don't send out greeting cards any more. I would like to convince myself that we don't, because we care about the environment. But the real reason why we don't do it any more, is that we are lazy. And, email has made it much simpler to greet people.  So, a couple of days before the end of the year, I type out my greetings, and send them to the near and dear ones in my address book. But, the greatest thing about email greetings is the fact that you don't have to wait till the middle of January to find out if people still remember Elvis. With a curt message about un-deliverable email, your mail software lets you know about the people who have moved on. To different destinations, that you have to find out about.

Yesterday, I found that a close colleague of mine, got fired. I only knew that he was no longer employed at our last place of employment when the email bounced. Then, another colleague replied to my greetings, and added that our mutual friend was fired. Fired, for speaking his mind in the land of the free. The land, that invented "straight talk from the gut"  and the first amendment. And worst of all, when the email came back, I didn't hear Elvis singing, since "return to sender" is not really that prominent in emails that bounce.

This year, I have been passionately following the anti-graft debate in India. It made me happy to see that the people were taking an interest in running their country, in spite of the fact that those who were indeed running the country, had no interest in letting the people take an interest.

December started off on a high note. It looked like there would be some legislation after all. And then, if we finally had an ombudsman to keep an eye on graft, we could move on to loftier things in life. Like a hot cup of  chai and steaming jalebis, early in the morning -- in a small town, somewhere in India. That Desi Babu dreams about, all the time.    

Alas, that was not to be. I have switched off my television, because frankly, I am bored of our politicians yelling at each other. They all remind me of my first grade buddies trying to convince the cane wielding teacher, that they were not the first ones to sling the mud. But, in the end, mud or not, everyone in the class would get caned.
As India's first anti-corruption ombudsman bill, also known as the Lok-Pal, gets shelved one more time, as much as I hate drawing parallels with my returned greeting-cards, I can almost hear Elvis singing in my ears, in his deep baritone.

Return to Sender, address unknown.
No such person, no such zone.

Wish you all, a happy new year. In case you have been postponing your jalebis for medical reasons, you might want to reconsider. For in 2012, the world might end after all. And when it does, there won't be any jalebis any more.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The trouble with ninety nine..

Many years ago, I learned a wonderful expression in Hindi, that is not very commonly used any more.

"Ninyanve ka pher", or roughly translated, "The trouble with ninety nine", represents a basic human trait, that has both positive and negative connotations. Mostly, people use it to demonstrate how greed works. If you have ninety nine Paise, you would love to have a Rupee. If you have ninety nine Rupees, a hundred would probably work out better. Those of you, who are in the corporate rat-race, have probably had a frequent desire to move to six figures, when you are making five. And, it specially hurts, if you are just one away from making the cut, doesn't it?

To me, the number ninety nine, has always been fascinating. It has always been a sign of hope. A hope that there is something beyond my reach -- something, that I can strive to achieve. And so, I am not really a big fan of hundred, or thousand, or any round number, with a bunch of zeros at the end. A train of nines, just gets me going, like that energizer bunny -- on and on and on.

A few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see, that I was a few posts short of a hundred, and a few weeks away from the one year anniversary of my blog. I kept wondering, which number I would hit on the one year date -- ninety nine, or hundred? Since I had enough time on my hands, I could probably make it work, whichever way I wanted. But as serious wannabe sadhus do, I left it to the greater dynamics of the cosmos, and the will of the greatest cosmic dancer of them all, who also smokes pot. And, as it turns out, one day before the first anniversary of my blog, I am just one post short of a hundred.

It has been an amazing year. I started out writing primarily for myself. For the joy of writing. But then, slowly, the comments and the emails started trickling in. Comments and emails, that made me aware that there are people out there, who like my writing. I have been blessed with readers, who have always let me know what they like and what they don't. And, I have slowly realized that although I write primarily for myself, it is an honor writing for the readers of this blog, who are amazingly well-read, opinionated, and most important, surprisingly kind to a never-gonnabe writer and a seriously-wannabe Sadhu.

I dedicate this ninety-ninth post of The Peanut Express to its readers. A day before its first anniversary. Here's to the missing ones!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Release the Kraken!

The land of the free has many pet shops. In fact, in every strip mall, that has a Blockbuster video store, a Subway sandwich corner and a mom and pop's Chinese restaurant,  there is a possibility that you will find a store that sells some kind of pets' supplies. And some, also sell pets. Once, I had inadvertently stumbled upon a store like that, which specialized in reptiles. They only sold snakes and lizards -- of all kinds.

I still remember a lazy copperhead in a glass display case, staring at me with its beady eyes. The look had nothing to do with a caged reptile. In fact, I could sense contempt and pity -- as if, the snake wanted to tell me, "There could be another time and place. With you, running in the forest, and me, lying down on a bed of dry leaves. First, you would run by me. And then, I would bite you. And of course, you would die -- quickly. Pity you."

I have always wondered what type of pet store ends up being more efficient. The neighborhood mom and pop's pet store, or the multinational with supply chains running all the way to African mamba nests and South American piranha colonies. While the moms and pops would be frugal with their supplies, sometimes catching rattlers in their backyards with butterfly nets, the multinational would negotiate volume discounts with field mice suppliers -- to feed the snakes. Somehow, my findings on who would ultimately win, have always been inconclusive.

For the last few weeks, the corruption debate in India has heated up once again, with the government trying to bring Wal-mart into India. To sell me cucumbers and cheese, and make my sandwiches cheaper. And then, all hell broke loose, all around the country. With the political left and the right united against an idea, that could probably have made my sandwiches cheaper. But then, in all my years in the land of the free, I seldom shopped at a Wal-mart. I remember buying a couple of avocados from a Wal-mart once. Those green things, stayed green for a month, and no insect in our house dared to attack them. Compare that to the avocados that we would usually buy from an organic store, which would start rotting in a few days, and you would probably start calculating how much pesticide went into the multinational avocado. To give it the long shelf life that improves Wal-mart's bottom-line, and balance sheets. And of course, they also have a pharmacy in the store, just in case you need anticancer drugs. At a huge discount, of course.

The public reaction in India against foreign retail chains, has been quite intense. And many, have tried to tie the ubiquitous graft issue around it, as if corruption, is somehow involved in all of this. But the ongoing anti-graft movement has called this entire issue a distraction, with which, the government is trying to delay pending legislation against corruption. 

In all of this, an anti-corruption news story that caught my eye, was that of a disgruntled snake charmer from the heartland. The man had apparently been granted some land to raise his cobras, but the local officials would not release it to him without a bribe. And so, he took a cartload of snakes to the government office, and released them there. The rest, is history.

In fact, the recent trend all around the world, of throwing shoes and slapping public officials who are perceived the be corrupt, has not really impressed me much. It does bring out basic human emotions of anger and frustration in all of us, but somehow, to me, it has never been elegant enough. If you want sophistication, you somehow need to bring the animals in. Pull them apart with horses, trample them with elephants, throw them to the lions. If you will.

I remember reading an old novel, in which an English lord responded to trespassers on his property, by barking to his butler, "Release the hounds!" And then, if you watch the recently made Hollywood movies on Greek gods, you will invariably find Zeus ordering Poseidon, "Release the Kraken!"

And so, I keep wondering, did the poor snake charmer from Desi-land do anything wrong by releasing his cobras in a government office? He may have been on the wrong side of the law, but you have to agree with me, that it was quite elegant. Wasn't it?!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Once upon a time

A couple of months ago, I was traveling on business. While waiting for my flight in the departure area, I overheard a conversation between a little girl, and her father, waiting for the same plane.

"Daddy, you said you will get me a fairy tale book. This is not a book of fairy tales!"

"But sweetie, it is. Look at the cover! There are fairies, dwarfs and wizards. What else do you need?"

"But daddy, this is not a fairy tale book. Look at how it begins!"

"How does it begin?"

"It does not begin with once upon a time. All fairy tales begin with once upon a time. I don't want this book. I want a real fairy tale book. You said you will get me a real fairy tale book."

She was about five, and I think that she had just started reading. As someone who had once parented a five year old girl, I could see where this was headed. First, there would be a tantrum. And, if she did it right, she could keep her old book, get a shiny new one, and perhaps a lollipop or two thrown in. How much she got, purely depended on how experienced her dad was, at handling her. From the looks of it, it did not seem like he had a lot of experience. Perhaps, this was his first time, traveling alone with his five year old.

Five year olds are clever. And little girls, having been blessed with two functional halves of the brain for such situations, are twice as clever as boys. I had once overheard my five year old, boasting to a friend of hers about something, "I know, but daddy does not know!". That, kind of sums it up, as far as a five year old girl's opinion of her ignorant daddy goes. Moms, are somehow immune to all of this -- perhaps, the fact, that they too can think with two functional halves of their brains -- greatly helps.

I was very curious to see where the conversation was headed. But, I was hungry, and needed to grab a sandwich or two. So, I left the waiting area. After fifteen minutes or so, I was standing in line to board the plane. By a strange coincidence, the little girl and her daddy, were right in front of me in the line. Daddy was on his cellphone, busy in a serious discussion.

The little girl had two shiny fairy tale books in her hand. And, she was enjoying a lollipop. I smiled and whispered to her, "You know, not all fairy tales have to start with once upon a time."

With a naughty smile, she whispered back, "I know, but daddy does not know!"

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Of Nawabs and Kebabs

Those of you, who have been reading my posts for a while, have probably guessed my political leanings by now. That's right, you pretty much hit the nail on the head when you said that it was left. Or wait, was it right? Probably center, would be more like it, going by some of the posts in the past. To be frank, my political beliefs are not very different from my religious ones -- I am a wanderer.  Across boundaries that are drawn to classify and distinguish, but boundaries that can be crossed. With ease.

And, it is only during these vagabond transgressions of faith,  that I get to discover what I truly believe in. Over the years, I have found that the things that I believe in, are very simple, and can pretty much be classified into any political or religious philosophy, that is out there. But, there are a few things that I am strongly against, and I am quite adamant about standing by the famous Desi Babu's limited list of hard line positions.

Monarchy is something that I cannot stand. When I was young and socialist, to me, monarchy was a true reflection of aberrant human behavior. When I grew up a little bit, and drank a few pitchers of beer with my politically opinionated friends in my many years in the land of the free, monarchy was defined to be a type of human behavior that was best left ignored. Like those hockey players to the north of the border, who still practiced the ghastly tradition. And, when I came back home to Des, monarchy was something to be enjoyed -- in the grand palaces of yore, that are now hotels of the fore. There is nothing like having a nice glass of scotch, sitting in the balcony of an ex-Maharaja's palace, overlooking a majestic garden at night. Lit up with a thousand colors, of all political affiliations and traffic light concessions -- from red to green. And, it is during these times that I am most open to accept monarchy.  And inebriation, usually helps. 

A few weeks ago, a legendary figure of Indian cricket, Mr. Mansoor Ali Khan, passed away. His family once ruled a small estate called Pataudi, close to the national capital. So, when the Republic of India abolished all royal titles and privileges, Mr. Khan ceased being a Nawab, which was a title given to royalty. Recently, a few nut-jobs from those villages, that are in that kingdom of yore, decided to bestow that title to his son. To me, personally, all this is all right now. As long as it does not undermine the democracy and the constitution of India, these ceremonies have no meaning. And I am sure that if the new Nawab, who makes a perfectly good living, singing and dancing in Bollywood flicks, declared independence from India, we could erect a few windmills in his "kingdom" to tilt at. And send him a horse named Rocinante. I read a few fiery articles on the entire issue, with arguments that ranged from "treason" to "'c'mon guys, it was like a birthday party, only, there was no cake!"

The use of the word Nawab, in any context, invariably puts a smile on my lips. It's not about nostalgia -- I  never saw monarchy in the India  that I grew up in. And, I am sure that my ancestors were lowly peasants in those old times, when they would have gladly exchanged their Nawab for a  few heaps of cow-dung. To make cakes with, so the hearth would continue to burn, in the home.  To me, the Nawabs were caricatures of grand times that never were. And their mannerisms, were comical enough, that people would make jokes about them. All the time.

There is a famous joke about two Nawabs waiting to board a train in the city of Lucknow, who kept curtsying to each other, till the train left. The phrase "Pehle Aap (You first)", however polite, has come to represent that comical incident.

In the small town of Bihar that I spent a few of my formative years in, there was an amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurant, that used to sell Kebabs. At lunchtime, I used to escape the sterile probity of the Jesuit campus of my college, and seek shelter behind the dingy lanes patrolled by aimless cows and protective motes made of open drains. And, in one such lane, was Nawab's kebab shop, ready to enthrall us college kids with the most delightful experience known to taste buds. With a chappati as thin as a silk handkerchief, and a couple of  "Nawabi" mutton-kebabs for a couple of bucks, life had never looked so good before.

The man, who used to run the place, was from a family of Nawabs that had long lost its kingdom. I had once asked him, " Janab, jab haamare jaise aam insaan nawabi kabab khaate hain, to aapko bura nahi lagta? (Sir, when commoners like me eat the Nawabi kebab, don't you feel sad?)"

Without a twitch, Mr. Nawab had answered, "Janab, Nawab ke khaane se kabab nahin banta, par is kabab ko khakar aap zaroor nawab ban jayenge. (Sir, the kebab doesn't get its status from being eaten by a Nawab, but if you eat this kebab, you will surely become a Nawab.)"

That, about sums it up.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The dissapearing idiom

A few days ago, during lunchtime, a friend of mine used a very old Hindi idiom, in a matter of fact way. Most of the people sharing the table with us, spoke good Hindi, but none grew up with the language. When my friend saw the blank looks on their faces, he explained what the idiom meant. And then, there were smiles -- all around the table.

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But, I have often felt that an idiom is at least worth five hundred. Specially,  if there are no pens to draw, or brushes to paint with.

And that got me thinking. How many of the idioms that I learned in school, do I still remember? And, how many of those do I use on a daily basis? In conversations with the people around me, who would know how to interpret them correctly. Sadly enough, I couldn't think of one!

But then, I did remember, with a smile on my face, the ones that I particularly liked as a child. The ones, that I would remember without the threat of another round of caning, from a big and burly gentleman that used to teach us Hindi. And one particular idiom that I still remember, after all these years, is "Ulte baans Bareilly ko", which, roughly translated, means, "It's like carrying bamboo (cane) back to Bareilly."

Still confused? Well, Bareilly used to be a sleepy little town in Desi-land,  where bamboo was plentiful, and a lot of people used to make a lot of stuff with it. Stuff, that fed many a family, and sent many a kid to college. And, so, if you were sending a bullock cart, full of bamboo to Bareilly, you were really sending it, where it was not in short supply.

I know. I know. Now, you probably remember an English idiom, that you read in your textbooks. An idiom, which means exactly the same. Does "Carrying coal to Newcastle" ring a bell? Just another idiom, for a pointless activity. Since, once upon a time, Newcastle, was the largest coal exporting port. In the empire, that never saw a sunset.

Times -- as they do -- have changed. Although I have never been to Bareilly, I am told that like the rest of India, it has seen a lot of development. New industries are coming to town, roads are being four-laned, and there is talk of an airport in the near future. Connecting the other cities of Desi-land to the land of bamboo. And cane, that my Hindi teacher seemed to be so adept at using. Newcastle, I am told, has long stopped exporting the shiploads of coal that it was known for. Now, you can carry as much bamboo to Bareilly or coal to Newcastle, as you wish. And no one, will raise an eyebrow. Really.

So, as I flipped through the imaginary book of idioms in my head, I came across many, that probably have ceased to be relevant. And, if you use one in conversation, you probably have to explain it to the listener, since times, have changed. As they do.

Most of the other idioms that I remembered, have something to do with animals, that were once popular in the places that I grew up in. Cows, Buffaloes and Camels. Specially Buffaloes, as they have a special place in the hearts of the people, in the heartland. Although, we often refer to the heartland as the "cow-belt", the buffalo still rules the hearts. And there are many idioms connected to the majestic animal -- everyone you come across, can tell you at least one.

Since I remembered Bareilly after a long time, I also remembered a famous Bollywood song from the old days, that mentions its bazaar.  With phrases, that could have become idioms in their own right. As you listen to the words that describe how a beautiful woman lost her earrings in a crowded marketplace, try to spot an animal or two, in the studio mock up of the famous bazaar of the famous town. Will you?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Expiration dates

A few days ago, I got up at about 2 A.M. I was hungry. Often, on such occasions, I make myself a late-night snack. So, I decided to make myself a cheese sandwich, which is pretty straightforward to make, if you have bread, and sliced cheese. And due to a habit, that I have developed after many years outside of "Desi-land", I checked the expiration date on the bread. At 2 A.M., a few hours from dawn, it dawned on me, that the bread was going to expire. Later that day. And then, I checked the cheese. I couldn't find an expiration date on the pack, and so, I said to myself what I always say on such occasions, "What the hell! No one has ever died from eating cheese."

The sandwich was delicious. And, I did wake up the next day. Alive.

I never knew that food could expire. In fact, growing up in small town India, I was lucky to have never been exposed to the very idea. That food, could expire. I usually saw the milk we drank, coming out from the cow's udders. And once, when our milkman had let me become his apprentice for a few minutes, I did try milking a cow. It goes without saying that it is not that easy, and once you get something for the effort, you don't let it expire. That easily, that is. Our eggs would be fresh too, the guy who used to raise chickens in our small town, used to bring them right over. In a strange contraption that used to look like a soccer ball, made out of wire mesh. I am one of those fortunate Desis, who has held a warm egg straight from the hen's behind. One does feel a slight pang of remorse, when the hen complains with a loud cluck, but then, fresh eggs will always help wipe the guilt off somewhat. If cooked the right way, that is. 

And bread? I held my first loaf in hand, when I was about thirteen. That is when, a bakery had started in our remote town, and the pao-roti, which we initially thought was roti made by kneading the dough with legs,  was simply not worth bothering with. The guy did not really know his way around with yeast, and very soon,  if I remember correctly, he started making Jalebis for a living. We all thought that it was a wise decision.

I first got exposed to the concept of expiring food, when, as a new graduate student in the land of the free, I decided to stock up on graduate student staples -- bread, eggs, cheese, frozen pizza, and the greatest of all Japanese inventions ever -- instant noodles.  A fellow student kindly explained to me, that I should check the expiration dates. And that is when I came to know that bread can expire. And like all good things have to come to an end, the milk and the eggs too, have to go.

I had always wondered what people would have done before refrigeration came along. Perhaps, modern civilization was built on the back of Freon, and a compressor, that keeps compressing -- day in, and day out. But then, I got introduced to French food. The bread, the wine and the cheese. And as I found out, those things only expire when you decide to let them go. I once heard about a type of cheese, that is aged with maggots around it, which add their own unique "flavor" to it.

So, I figured -- if you don't believe in the concept of food expiration, you either live in Desi-land, or, you become French. During my midnight snack, I did think of the infamous "maggot cheese". It provided somewhat of a solace, that the cheese I was wolfing down, had perhaps survived, and would let me survive too.

The next day, when I got back home from work, I found my wife looking at the pack of bread and shaking her head disapprovingly. She asked, "The bread is expiring today, and the eggs are expiring tomorrow. What do you think I should ask the cook to do with them?"

I thought for a minute. And then, I said with a smile on my face, " Ask her to make French toast. It never expires."

Friday, October 21, 2011

No Comprendo!

Many years ago, someone told me the story of a visitor to a small town in Spain. The visitor didn't speak much Spanish, but it hadn't really affected his ability to explore the wonderful country. As he was taking a walk though a well-to-do neighborhood of the town, he saw a beautiful mansion, with a garden full of colorful flowers in front. As he stood admiring the mansion, someone walked by. In his extremely poor Spanish, he asked the passerby, who the mansion belonged to. The man shrugged, and said in Spanish, "No Comprendo", which means, I do not understand. The visitor assumed that Mr. Nocomprendo must be a very wealthy man. As he walked though the streets of the town, he came across several large factories and other places of business, and each time he inquired about the ownership of  those establishments, his regard for the material wealth of Mr. Nocomprendo increased. Eventually, he walked by a beautifully decorated hearse, being pulled by a magnificent pair of black horses, and bedecked with flowers of all kinds. And of course, he had to ask one of the mourners following the hearse, who had passed.

The answer, gave the visitor, a very important life lesson -- you can own the world, but one day, you too, have to go. And, you don't get to take anything with you, when you go.

Recently, I had an interesting thought. If God did allow us to take just one thing with us to the other world, with the condition, that it could not be a living being, what material object would we carry with us. This object, could be anything from the life that was lived, from the cradle to the grave. And then, I thought about a variety of things from my own life, that were once very dear to me, but with time, had lost their sheen. Perhaps, it could be the toy that I got by following my father in the market, pleading with him, that it would be the last thing that I would ever pester him about. Perhaps, it could be the hard-bound 1921 edition of Tolstoy's 'War and Peace', that I discovered in an old book shop. Or perhaps, it would be my laptop computer, with all my tax records for the last decade in its hard drive. But then, who pays taxes in hell anyway? It was rather strange, that I could not identify one material object, that is so dear to me, that taking it with me to the other world, would give me happiness there.

A couple of days ago, I saw yet another dictator, half dead, and being dragged through the streets of yet another repressed state, going though its own revolutionary "spring".  I remember seeing the executed remains of the Romanian dictator, Ceausescu, on television during the lifting of the iron curtain. More recently, we all saw the not-so-private execution of Saddam Hussein, captured on a mobile phone. And then, seeing the videos of yet another dictator getting a taste of his own medicine, made me wonder. What if? What if God had given him a chance to take one thing with him? What would he have chosen?

Since I seem to acquire most of my "wisdom" from sadhus, I remember one particular statement, once made by a mendicant, that is probably very relevant to all this. He had said, "When we have everything -- all the riches, and all the power over the people around us -- we think, that we have become God.  And, there is no need for God any more. Little do we realize, that when we deliberately give everything up, that is when we come closest to God. Then, we are one with God, and that is how, we become God."

All this, brought back thoughts of my first emperor, Chandragupta Maurya, about whom, I have written in the past. At the peak of his powers, when he was the emperor of an India that was much bigger in size than it is today, he abdicated, and even shed the clothes on his body. To become a monk, and deliberately give everything up. To be one with God.

I wonder, if we had the chance to ask the first emperor, if he understood why the powerful people in our world have such a strong desire to cling on to power till their final moments, what he would say.  If the emperor spoke modern-day Spanish, I am pretty sure that he would say, "No Comprendo!"

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hook, Line and Sinker

A friend, who used to fish at dawn, had once given me a vivid description of what happens at daybreak for anglers. Sitting at the edge of the water, the first thing you see, is the early morning fog. Clearing away from your feet, that you can barely see. And then, you might just be able to make out the line. The hook stays buried in the mist. And just like you cannot spot the fish near the hook, the fish cannot spot the line, and you. It is an amazing game of patience, that makes poker look like child's play. And, as the dawn breaks, you sit there hoping, that the fish bites. Because if it does, the rest of your day --  is made.

I was recently in Kerala. In the paradise of coconut palms, next to the emerald backwaters. And strangely, as I was falling for the charms of the beautiful state, I fell for something that I never thought I would. The hotel we were staying at, offered "complimentary" fishing, and I took the bait. In the past, whenever I have "fished", I have gone fishing with someone, who knew way more about it than I did. And usually, all of these people were armed with equipment, that was probably taken from captain Ahab's storeroom, except that we would merely fish for trout.  But this time, it was different. The hotel guy handed me a long bamboo pole, that had a nylon cord attached at the sagging end, with a measly looking hook tied to it. And then, he handed me a coffee cup, full of little pieces of cut up chicken, to be used as bait. Finally, he walked me to the edge of the boat jetty, told me that the water was deep enough to drown me, wished me luck -- and, walked away.

And, there I was. With my limited knowledge of fishing, and the most primitive equipment one can rig up, trying to fish.  The failure to fish -- could be blamed on many many things. But we all need to take refuge in  the higher moral ground, above petty excuses, don't we? So, it did help that I remembered a couple of things that I believe in. I strongly believe that if you go hunting or fishing, you should not do it for sport. And, that you must eat what you hunt or catch, since you would be gravely insulting mother nature, if you didn't. I also remembered, that I really don't enjoy eating fish that much, but the doctor has told me time and again, that if I am not a vegetarian, I should eat fish more than any other kind of meat. So, as I saw the chicken pieces stuck to the hook, slowly sinking to the muddy bottom, I hoped for the best. That -- I wouldn't catch, what I couldn't  eat.  

Fishing, without the intent to catch a fish, is the best way to while away your time. Newspapers, or television, don't even come a distant nine hundred and ninety ninth. It does help that you get to breathe the clean air and listen to the sounds of nature. And, when you wake up from your daydream,  you find that tens of pesky little fish, small enough to escape the hook, have nibbled away at your bait from the side. And then, it is time to reload the hook -- and wait.

While my hook was in the water, I kept looking at the tall coconut palms, with gigantic bunches of young green coconut on them. And, I kept hoping that someone would crack one open for me. And then, get some sweet rum, and pour it inside the coconut. Well, I needed just one more thing -- hand me a nice long straw, and then, disappear quietly. Please. Since you wouldn't want to scare the fish away, and I was there for the fishing, wasn't I?

Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite writers of all times, was a big fan of fishing. And once, he had famously remarked, "Somebody just back of you while you are fishing is as bad as someone looking over your shoulder while you write a letter to your girl." While I was fishing, a whole bunch of people waved and smiled at me -- hotel visitors, helpful staff and wannabe anglers. And when I tried to pick a distant spot and hide from all the unwanted attention, a security guard stopped by. To make sure that I was secure enough, and a large fish hadn't yet pulled me into the water. Since the water, as someone had told me before, was quite deep. Deep enough, to drown me. 

I spent a few hours fishing. For fish, that I didn't catch. But, I had a really good time. It would have been better with some coconut and rum, but even without it, I had fun. And then, like an expert angler, I wound the nylon cord around the bamboo pole, making diagonal stripes from the top to the bottom. With an extra twist for the hook at the base. It was time to go. 

As I was walking back to my room, I was wondering which one of the old fishing maxims I could use on my wife. Not that she was going to make fun of me for returning empty-handed. But, it always helps if you can take out some pearls of wisdom from the oysters you didn't net. And shower them, to make up for the lack of fish.

I walked by a hotel employee, who asked me with a lot of enthusiasm, if I had any luck. I had no fish in my hand, and a dejected bamboo pole with its head hung in shame. It wasn't really necessary to tell him that I hadn't. He smiled, and in his passable English, gave me the fishing quote that I was looking for -- No fish today, no problem! Catch fish tomorrow, no problem!

That afternoon, I didn't hook a perch, a catfish or a red snapper, when I could have. But, I did manage to hook some great fishing wisdom. That fishing, is all about hope, optimism and the desire to come back, the very next day.

For tomorrow, a fish might bite -- and if you get lucky -- it might bite real big. As in hook, line and sinker.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bapu's Birthday

Many years ago, an old Sikh gentleman had taken me under his wings. To educate me about Sikhism, which I consider as one of the most mature spiritual philosophies in the world. Because of its religious beliefs, this gentleman's family had to flee from Pakistan, and seek refuge in India, after the partition of the country. They lost everything in the process of moving from Pakistan. But their faith, gave them the strength, to rebuild their lives from scratch. He would rarely speak of the partition, but, when he did, he would say one thing. Again and Again.

"It was all Gandhi's fault, you know. If he wanted to stop the country from being partitioned, he could have!"

The independent India that I grew up in, was orphaned in its first year. The father of the nation, fell to an assassin's bullet, and his philosophy -- to many things. Way too many to write about, in a few lines here. My generation was smitten with socialism. And violent revolutions, if the end justified the means. Gandhi was outdated, and irrelevant. Our textbooks would talk about Gandhi, and our teachers would punctuate the sentences with the names of Bose, Stalin and Castro.  It was fashionable to beat up on Bapu, since Bapu would not care. And, in case he did, he was already dead.

In the last few decades, there have been countless occasions, on which, me and my friends, over a drink or a smoke, have blamed the Mahatma. For everything under the sun. From the partition of the country, to a "weak" national backbone -- that made us into a bunch of  "wussies".

A couple of days ago, I got together with a bunch of my old friends, for a nice and quiet lunch. We were looking forward to catching up on the things that had happened in our lives, since we last met. Over a couple of beers, and some smoke. And then, when we were ordering our stuff, the server told us, rather timidly, that we couldn't order any beer. And then, it occurred to us, like a flash in the dark, that it was Bapu's birthday. On the birthday of the father of the nation, no alcohol is sold, anywhere in India. The Mahatma, was a strict advocate of prohibition.

It goes without saying, that we all jumped at the opportunity. One of my friends, was particularly vocal, though respectful. He said, "Sixty-four years after independence, on one nice Sunday that we could find, we can't have an ice cold beer in this free country of ours!  Don't you think it is Bapu's fault?"

The lunch was great. We spent a lot of time chatting and blowing rings of smoke. At about three in the afternoon, my vocal friend offered to drop me home, since he was headed the same way. As we drove through the swanky towers of glass and steel, through the central business district of our city, and took a peek at the golf course, my friend said, "It's amazing how India is changing, isn't it? In a few years, we have a pretty good shot at being a superpower in our own right. I couldn't ever imagine us being this way, if we were not a free country."

I muttered, "Yes, I know. It's all Bapu's fault, isn't it?"

First, he glared at me. And then, he gave me the biggest smile that he ever has. I am pretty sure, that Bapu would have smiled too. After all, it was his birthday.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Picking sturdy buffaloes

"All right losers, I am off for a day!" That is what Pradeep would say to us on Saturday evenings. Before retiring with a bottle of cheap alcohol, a couple of packs of cigarettes, and sometimes, rolled up "cigars", that contained various types of  leaves. Of disputed legality, that God has been kind enough to share with His creation. His room would stay locked from the inside on Sundays. And on Monday mornings, he would emerge, metamorphosed, and rejuvenated  -- like a butterfly from the cocoon. And then, he would go straight to the class, since Fluid Mechanics as a subject, had never looked so good.

Those were the golden years. In my undergraduate days, in my IIT, which too, is on that terrible list.  The list of IITs, that have contributed to ten student suicides this year. Since this topic is very close to my heart, I decided to write about it -- in a non-political way, that does not do creative accounting with the blame. If there is blame to go around, there are ten fingers for every person that wants to point them. 

During my four years at an IIT, we did not have a single student suicide. There were a couple of unfortunate deaths, from accidents and disease. Young lives cut short, by things we had little control over. But, most of us, spent a happy set of four years, unaware of the various problems in the scary world out there. And completely aware of the power of intoxication and camaraderie, and how the two can get you through the toughest times in life.

So, why are we seeing the disturbing trend of young people killing themselves in the IITs? We too had tough times, during our times. How come we survived?

I have thought a lot about this, and I have come to a simple conclusion. Perhaps, the problem is with one word that is so prominently showcased in the names of these institutes -- technology. When we went to school at the IITs, there were no cellphones and no Internet. To call home, you would need to walk up to the telephone exchange, and make arrangements for a trunk call. Google, Facebook and Twitter were yet to be invented -- we would trade gossip the old fashioned way. Sitting around on the mess-rooftop and smoking our cheap cigarettes, with promises to send each other cases full of Marlboro, after we had made it. Some of us did make it, but the cases never arrived. But that, is beside the point.

I was recently appalled to find that the IITs now have Internet access in every hostel room, and the students spend most of their free time, surfing the web. Locking themselves up in their rooms, with no immediate support structure to fall back upon -- if someone gets the cold shoulder from a romantic interest on Facebook. Thousands of miles away. If someone lands a million buck job, there are tweets about it, that everyone can get on their mobile phones. Gone are the days when the promise of a good job, was followed up by the promise of a good bottle of alcohol, to be shared till the last drop was washed out with water. Celebratory intoxication made our bonds stronger. Than ever.

We too had tremendous academic pressure in our times. We didn't have the latest marvels of technology to engineer the natural world. Some of us were still using log-tables during our initial years -- to predict when a motor would overload, or an engine would blow. But, good friends, good times and the dreams of a good life, never let us blow our engines, or overload our motors.

The strangest, and the the most hurtful thing that I have heard of, in this sad situation, is IIT-Kanpur's decision to get rid of the ceiling fans in the hostel rooms. So the students would not be able to hang themselves. Of all the people in the world, the professors at these IITs should know, that if someone wants to kill himself, he can find a hundred different ways. And I am pretty sure that one can use Google to get the necessary information.

An obvious solution here is to completely stop Internet access in the hostel rooms. The students, should have down-time, specially, if the curriculum is one of the toughest in the world. And one more solution, is to force people out of their rooms for a few hours every evening, no matter how reclusive they are.  It doesn't matter what they do in that time, they can get drunk if they want -- a drunk student, even a dead drunk one -- is  much better than a dead student.

One more thing that can be done in this regard, is to change the selection process for these institutes. The joint entrance examination has now become so stressful, that students are half broken by the time they get in. For someone sitting at the edge of a cliff, sometimes, the temptation is very high. To jump off it.

As you know, Desi Babu likes to make use of his Desi philosophy on serious matters.

So, I need to tell you a story from my childhood, when I had a conversation with the local milkman, when he was showing off his latest acquisition -- a sturdy buffalo, with a shiny coat. When I had asked him if he had selected the buffalo based on its shiny coat, he had remarked, "Babua, chamdi ki to palish aur malish ki ja sakti hai, par asli bhains ke to daant acche hote hain. Maine daant dekhkar kharida hai apni bhains ko. (Child, the buffalo's coat can be polished and massaged for a good shine, but a good buffalo has good teeth. I selected my buffalo, based on its teeth.)"

For years now, the IITs have preferred an entrance examination, that tends to choose the shiny skin over the healthy teeth. Let's hope that they can change -- to select sturdier buffaloes that can stand the test of time. Based on healthy teeth, and not shiny skin.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Goat Curry

I remember the rice paddies. Vividly.

As the late afternoon breeze would find its way through the tall and golden paddies, it would make the shiny leaves and stalks sway back and forth. And together, they would make waves -- in a sea of gold. At the time,  I was six years old, and, like it goes for six year olds, everything around me, was much taller than it seems today. And, at that time, I was slightly shorter than my grandma, which meant that I could still hide behind her. If the situation demanded so.

My grandma, her height notwithstanding, was a lady of determination and grit. So much so, that the entire village would listen to her gentle and persuasive voice, and usually, her wish would be their command. On that afternoon, I was trying to be brave, standing in front of my grandma, and looking at the sea of gold in front. The harvest season was fast approaching, and we were all eagerly looking forward to the fresh crop.

That was when I saw Idris Mian, for the first time. He was dressed like the average Muslim farm-hand in North India. He was dressed in a lungi and a well worn undershirt. He had a skullcap on his head, which didn't seem to have much hair on it. He had a long beard, and no moustache. Idris was tall, and well built, with a general appearance that would scare any six year old. So, when I saw him walking towards us, through the fields of gold, with a shiny sickle in his hand, the sight was enough to get me scampering. To hide behind my grandma, which I thought was the safest thing to do.

Idris walked all the way across the field to stand close to us, and then, he raised his hand in a Saalam. My grandma nodded in acknowledgment. And then, the conversation that followed gave me the impression that grandma was hiring him as a farm-hand. To help with the harvest, and till the crop was ready, to help with growing some vegetables in a patch of land, that she owned. After the conversation was over, and Idris went away to get acquainted with his work, I whispered in my grandma's ears, "Grandma, that man looks scary. As if, he ran away from the prison." She smiled and said, "Not quite. But he did get out of prison recently after serving a jail term. Luck must have been on his side, since the man he had beaten up in a brawl, did not die. That man Idris, is a very hard worker. But, he is extremely hot-headed."

I had no idea why grandma would hire such a man. But, he came highly recommended by a trusted farm hand. And, we always knew, that grandma knew better.  Than the rest of us, combined.

I was visiting my grandparents, and my grandma would sometimes take me to the farm with her. Grandma had inherited a lot of land from her father, who was a Zamindar (wealthy landowner). As my grandpa wanted to have nothing to do with grandma's inheritance, she took care of the land. And grandpa, was happy with his government job in the city, where they both lived in a huge house that my grandpa had inherited.

At that time, there wasn't really much for me to do. I would raid my grandpa's supply of classics, to read through a leather bound edition of 'Robinson Crusoe' for the five hundredth time. Sometimes, I would chase the neighborhood cat around till it would either admit defeat and run away, or, scowl in a way, that showed its family connection to the big cats. And then, I would admit defeat, and go and do something equally boring -- like babysitting a cousin. But, all this while,  I would tune into the stories of the occasional visitor from Grandma's farm. About how Idris, the new farm-hand, had turned the vegetable patch around. Grandma would hear the tales of  the tomatoes and the pumpkins in her patch, and smile a gentle smile. The gentle smile, that meant, "Wasn't I right, in hiring that guy?"

Then, there was a week, in which grandma went to the farm by herself. That was a hurried decision, based on something that had happened on the farm. She did not take me with her, and I suspected that something was wrong. When she came back the day after, she looked very serious. That evening, we all sat down for dinner, on soft mats on the kitchen floor. Around the warmth of the chulha, from which, grandma would take out fresh baked chappatis, to go with the spicy goat curry she had made for us. With a slice of onion on the side, that dinner, was simple, but heavenly.

Grandpa asked grandma about the farm. And that is when, I found out why she had to let Idris go, and the things, that led to it.

Apparently, in a couple of weeks, Idris had turned the vegetable patch around. He had toiled night and day to get the pumpkin vines to the point where they were showing signs of flowering. Grandma's village was a village of Hindus, while Idris lived in a neighboring village of Muslims.  Initially, there was some resentment about his presence, but things, were finally falling into place. And then, a neighbor's goat, broke the cease-fire.  It somehow got into grandma's vegetable patch, and started devouring all of Idris's hard work. And when Idris discovered the goat, it was already too late -- the pumpkin vines, were gone. And that is when, Idris the hot-head, lost his head.  He took a stick, and started beating the goat. Mercilessly.

By the time the village folks got to him, the goat was half dead. And then, some people got the idea that a Muslim farm-hand, had beaten up a "Hindu" goat. Had grandma not arrived the next day, and pacified everyone, there would have been a full scale riot in the village. With Idris at the center of it.

And so, grandma had to let Idris go.

After grandma finished her story, the first thing that grandpa verified, was if the goat curry we were having for dinner, had the same goat in it. Grandpa would not eat a goat, which had suffered such terrible cruelty. When grandma confirmed that it wasn't, it was my turn to be disappointed. After all, it would have been such sweet revenge -- to eat the goat, that had destroyed our vegetable patch.

Since grandpa had to share his wisdom, he turned towards me and said, "This story of religious hatred must be quite shocking to you. But remember. In the end, there are no Hindus and no Muslims. In the end, we are all dead."

It's been many years since. And grandpa, has moved on to a better place. And many years, over which, I have been accumulating my own wisdom. I am sure, if I had all this wisdom to share with my grandpa on that day, I would have said, "And remember grandpa. In the end, there are no Hindu goats or Muslim goats. In the end, there is only goat curry."

I wonder if grandpa would have liked that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Of snips and clips

Whenever I get my hair cut, I prefer the street side hole-in-the-wall barber to the one running the air-conditioned salon. Any day. First, there is that little matter of paying a lot less for the same service. Then of course, there is the small talk and gossip. You just can't beat a barbershop, as far as smalltalk goes.

Barbers, will tell you amazing stories. So amazing, that sometimes, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, will pale in comparison. And sometimes, you will learn new things about the great epics themselves, that glorify all sections of society. Including the barbers, of course.

The small Desi town I grew up in, had only one barbershop. But, there was an entire bunch of "traveling" barbers, who would come to our home regularly, to check who needed a haircut, and who needed their nails trimmed. Once, while getting a haircut from one such "barber on call", I came across an interesting story.

After slaying the demon king Ravan, when the Hindu god Ram came back to his kingdom of Ayodhya, the streets were adorned with flowers, and the men and the women dressed up in their finest silk and gold. To welcome the king back home, from all his years in the wild, fighting monsters and demons in a way that the world had never seen before. But, before the king could re-enter his kingdom, people close to him realized that he badly needed a haircut.  And so, the first group of people who attended to the great king -- were a bunch of barbers. According to my barber, that very fact showed how important a barber's place in society is. Since Lord Ram, God's own avatar on earth, needed the barbers before anyone else, on his way back to the golden throne.

In case you don't believe it, like I didn't for a long time, you can actually open up your personal copy of the Valmiki Ramayana. And, in chapter 128 of book 6, the Yuddha Kanda, right after a bunch of verses describing familial love and propriety, the king's brother, Bharat, realizes that the king needs to look like a king. After many years in the wild. And then, out pops a verse with -- you guessed it right -- a bunch of barbers in it. With gentle hands, if I may add.

We are just about a couple of weeks from the beginning of the biggest festive season in India. From Gujarat to Bengal, and Kashmir to Karnataka, people participate in nine days of rituals -- to worship the mother goddess, in various forms. But, the tenth day, is usually reserved for the Lord Ram. On that day, during the festival  of Dussehra, people celebrate the homecoming of the warrior prince, to take up his throne. And many places in Des, have the ultimate form of entertainment for Desis like me, in the form of Ramleela, which is a form of folk theater, that reenacts the famous  battle between Ravan, the demon king, and Lord Ram.

Like all small towns, ours too had its own Ramleela troupe. A handsome "pretty boy" used to act the part of Lord Ram, and the local pehelwan (wrestler), used to act the part of Ravan. The pehelwan, let's call him Bajrangi, since I don't remember his name, used to express his frustration over the fact that year after year, he would be defeated in battle, by the "pretty boy". And year after year, his requests to act the part of Lord Ram, were declined on the grounds, that he was too fat for the role. So, since eventually, every pot boils over, Bajrangi's did too -- during the enactment of the famous battle on stage. We had to hurriedly pull the curtains down, and break up an irate audience with all sorts of excuses. And the next day, the entire town saw the "pretty boy" with a black eye. And a very happy Bajrangi, gorging on jalebis, at the street side halwai's sweet shop.

What we learned out of that entire experience, was the simple fact that the battle between good and evil, personified by Ram and Ravan, is still not over. And everyday, new Rams and Ravans are created -- and the battle -- rages on.

So, the barbershop, that I used to visit regularly, was run by two barber-brothers. One of them, was a Mr. Ramachandran, who would give me the most awesome haircut and head massage for about fifty rupees, and throw in some smalltalk and gossip in his strongly accented Hindi, for free. Sometimes, he would also tell me with a lot of pride, that he was named after Lord Ram, the demon slaying Avatar.

Then, the barbershop suddenly closed its doors. People told me that there was a very public falling out between the two brothers, and they shut the place down. I had started looking for another place to get my hair cut. And then, last week, the place reopened. With my favorite Mr. Ramachandran gone. His brother, gave me an excellent haircut and head massage, but the smalltalk was missing, which I attributed to the poor Hindi he spoke.
I asked the guy what his name was. He told me that it was Ramachandran. I remarked, quite innocently, that it was quite strange that there used to be another Mr. Ramachandran in the shop, who used to give pretty good haircuts. 

Like Bajrangi Pehelwan from my small town Ramleela troupe, the new Mr. Ramachandran, exploded. In his heavily accented English, he told me, "Sir, I am the true Ramachandran. That man you met before, was not Ramachandran. His real name was Ravanna."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Oh God! No God?

I love history. More archaeology than history, but some of that is mere semantics to the uninitiated in the subject. Like me.

A lot of my love for history probably stems from the wonderful storyteller-teachers I had, in school. But, by the time I came across the first Indiana Jones movie, I was already in love with nuts and bolts. So, there was no turning back. But, I have often wondered what it would have been like -- to be an archaeologist. Being in the elements for days, with a shovel and a brush in hand, and sometimes, yelling at the workmen in the pits. To be extra careful, with that new mummy they found. 

Recently, I came across a wonderful book by Abraham Eraly, called 'The Mughal World: Life in India's Last Golden Age'.  It is one of those books that you can open at any page, and still, come out happy after a few pages. Happy, that you learned something new. And so, I was recently happy, that in spite of all the history that I learned from my wonderful teachers, I learned something that I did not know about. That the Mughal emperor, Jehangir, could actually have been an atheist!

Jehangir, is probably the least known Mughal emperor of India. He pales in comparison to his illustrious father, Akbar the great, and his son Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal. And, as the history books say, he spent most of his time drinking and womanizing, and so, did not really have much time for the matters of state. But, his thinking was probably influenced by that of his secular father, and so, he took it a step further. He tried to decouple religion from the state -- unless, the mix gave him a moral authority to rule. And, on one occasion, he had quite the conversation with a European missionary, who writes, "..and he said that if you throw the cross and the holy book into the fire, and they are not consumed by it...I will become a Christian.The emperor of India is an atheist!"

I sat up when I read those lines, because, once, I had used exactly the same words with someone, who was trying to get me to accept his religion. And, at that time, I was experimenting with the religion of those, who did not have a religion -- atheism. It is not really a strange thing for most scientists and engineers, to have fiddled with atheism, at some stage or the other in their lives. Our training, conditions us to ask questions, and only believe the things that can be proven with experiments. And so, as a neo-atheist, when someone tried to browbeat me with the fire-and-brimstone speech, I had used the exact same words, that Jehangir had used. To test the might of God, and his religion.

I was recently reading a news story about how many of the young people in today's world are turning atheistic. The article attributed this turn of philosophy to education and rationalistic thought, which is now strong enough to counteract years of upbringing -- sometimes, in extremely conservative and religious environments.

But, what the article forgot to talk about, was the fact, that by default, most young people are willing to challenge the status-quo,  even if the challenged entity -- is God. So, when I was eighteen, I too was an atheist. And even now, sometimes, the temptation is very high. To be an atheist -- and sometimes -- to be eighteen.

Over the years,  I have been fortunate enough to have traveled the path of polytheism and monotheism, agnosticism and atheism, and now, my bus seems to have halted in the town of spiritualism, for a few years. Most of my spiritual base is around the philosophy of Shaivism, which usually preaches the path of monotheism and self-realization. Through contemplation and meditation.

I do not believe in Gurus, but sometimes, one comes across absolute pearls of wisdom from the spiritual masters out there.  Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, one such spiritual master, had once made an amazing statement during the festival of Shivaratri -- about Shiva:

"The word Shiva literally means that which is not. That which is, is existence; that which is, is creation. That which is not is Shiva. If you open your eyes and look around, if your vision is for small things, you will see lots of creation. But if your vision is really looking for big things, you will see that the biggest presence in existence is a vast emptiness ...... The only thing that can truly be all-pervading is darkness -- nothingness or emptiness .... Don't pass tonight without knowing at least a moment of the vastness of the emptiness that we call Shiva."

Once, as a teenager, I was aimlessly wandering around the banks of the river Ganges, in the holy city of Haridwar. I came across a Sadhu, sitting on the riverbank, and smoking pot from his chillum. I was brave enough to approach him and ask a question, that was plaguing me for quite some time, as I was experimenting with atheism. With his permission, I asked, "Babaji, mere man mein ishwar ki jagah khaali hai, main kiski puja karoon? (Holy father, the place for God in my mind, is empty. Who should I worship?)"

The sadhu took a long drag from his chillum. Then, he looked at me for a few seconds with his blood red eyes. And then, in a thundering voice, he said, "To phir beta, khaali ki puja kar. Bada mazza ayega! (Then son, worship the emptiness. You will like it a lot!) ".

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where were you on..

September 11, 2001.

It is hard to believe that a decade has gone by. A decade, which in certain ways, has changed the world around us. As humans, we tend to remember certain defining moments of history in our small and insignificant lives. And invariably, when we talk to each other about those moments, the first question that springs up, starts with the phrase, "Where were you on...?

I remember where I was, on that fateful day. I was just about to start my day. I remember logging into my computer at about eight in the morning. The entire front page of the news-site, that I had set up as my home page, had only one news item -- in the largest font that I had ever seen on any news site. About how terrorists had crashed a plane into the world trade center. I also remember, that at that moment, I had done two things, rather frantically.  I had dialed the phone number of a close relative, who used to work in a Wall street firm. And, I had made a mad-dash for the television in the living room, which, on a normal day, wouldn't be switched on before evening. I also remember how busy the phone lines in New York  city were on that day.  I spent a tense couple of days before I heard back from my relative about his safety, only to realize, that many were not as lucky as I was.

And, within a few minutes of turning on the television, I remember seeing the second plane crashing into the other tower. Live. As I was staring at the screen, I remember the newsmen on TV sharing my sense of disbelief. On that day, there was no work done at work, as most of us, congregated in the break room, and stared at the television. For hours. We already knew, that this was probably the most profound historical moment in American history, after Pearl Harbor.

The details came much later. Soon afterwards, we saw some fundamental changes to the way, in which, America did its business. In small ways, freedom and national security came at loggerheads with each other. The years of a decade, and many lives, were lost to two wars, and the business of maintaining peace. I moved on with my own life, and came back home to India. But, that day, will remain etched in my memory. For ever. 

Today, as I was remembering 9/11, what came to my mind, were not the tall and mighty towers of glass and steel crumbling under the horrible impact of an act, which I never imagined human beings would be capable of. I remembered something else -- a bunch of school students, in the parking lot of the neighborhood grocery store, washing cars. For a few dollars, which would be collected and sent to the brave souls of the New York Fire Department. That was one small way, in which the teenagers of the 9/11 generation, would be able to do their bit. For their country.

An old lady, who was probably someone's grandmother, was helping with the cash collection. In retrospect, I think, she was probably as old during Pearl Harbor, as her grandchildren were, on 9/11. These were two generations, forever changed by the events, that they had witnessed in their own times. I keep wondering, how they remember, where they were -- on those fateful days.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tea Time in Karol Bag

A few weeks ago, I was in Delhi.

I was staying in a seedy hotel, a short walk away from the one street "Boulevard" of the famous Karol Bag market. It is a really curious place to hang out at. I have been lately complaining about the disappearance of the old India, that I miss so much. If you ever go to Karol Bag, you will see a strange sight. A street-side temple of the Hindu god Ram, replete with marble tiles, and bright colors, is located next to a few juice stalls, and an open drain. Located right across the street from this homage to the old hero of Indian culture, is an ATM, perhaps, the only one in the market. To say hello to God, you just need to walk in. To withdraw money from the cash machine, you need to first stand in a line, and then, walk up a short flight of stairs. Just like you would do, in the old days of the old India, when you wanted to say hello to God.

In most Indian cities, it almost seems like the grand lady of old India was a little careless, bathing at the pond. And, a hungry crocodile didn't want to miss out on the great opportunity of a free meal. If Bangalore is the city, where it looks like the crocodile had a hearty meal, Karol Bag in Delhi, is the place where you will see most of the torso still  hanging outside the crocodile's jaws. But the head and the shoulders, alas, have fallen, to the crocodile of development.

Macabre comparisons aside, it is quite an interesting place. Really.

There are rows after rows of stores that sell the same thing. If they ever taught you about product differentiation in a kick-ass business school, Karol Bag is not the place to try it.  There are big shops, really big ones, that stock spices to make Punjabi pickles. Row after row, shelf after shelf, shop after shop. That's all they sell -- spices to make Punjabi pickles. And, if you pause in front of the door for a few minutes, wondering who in the world would buy that stuff, you might get trampled by a healthy looking family of Sikh ladies and gentlemen -- on their way to pickle heaven. I almost got away with my limbs intact. And then, I decided to look for tea.

It was quite interesting, walking up and down the Boulevard, like the Chicanos used to, with no tea in sight. Most shopkeepers didn't seem to have a clue about where to find tea in Karol Bag. There was a Starbucks like phenomenon close to where I was standing, but I wouldn't be caught dead drinking tea in a place like that. And, pay close to a hundred bucks for that nefarious concoction they like to call tea. I was almost beginning to wonder if the people in Delhi didn't drink any tea. Or if they did, perhaps, they didn't care much about the quality. Or the price.

And then, I thought about asking a street-side vendor, about where I could find tea. Real Desi tea, with lots of milk and sugar.  The guy casually pointed me to a narrow alleyway between two rows of shops and said, "Ask for pundit, he makes the best tea in Karol Bag. Remember to ask for the Aam Aadmi ki Chai (common man's tea)"

Now that, got me curious. Common man's tea?

If the sun has already set for the day in the great city of Delhi, that alleyway, is a place you simply don't want to step into. Trust me on that one. But then, at the end of a row of shops, I discovered a small hole in the wall, where Mr. Pundit had a nifty little arrangement going on. He had two kerosene stoves, with pans full of boiling liquids in them. One was close to where the customers would stand, the other was a little away. Both, seemed to have tea in them. When I asked him for tea, he asked very casually, "Aam chai, ya khas chai? (Common tea, or special tea?)".

Now, Delhi, is a city of common people and special people. The Mughals, in their famous courts, had a Diwan-e-aam (Court for the common people) and a Diwan-e-khas (Court for the special people). So, I thought, why should Mr. Pundit's tea shop be any different? But then, in the past, I have drunk special things, mixed in common drinks. Perhaps, you have read my past post on Bhang (crushed cannabis leaves mixed in a sweet drink), during Holi, when I almost attained seventh heaven, albeit, for a few seconds. So, I asked Mr. Pundit, what the difference was. Between common tea, and special tea. The man is very reticent, and I don't think he felt it was worth the effort taxing his vocal cords, for a commoner like me. So, for seven bucks, he poured me a cup of the common man's tea, and that, would have been the end of it.

But then, a few of his customers walked in, after I did, and all of them asked for the special tea. They all had one thing in common -- they weren't exactly the kind of people, that you would invite home for tea. Some had red eyes and unshaven faces, and some, complained about life and wife, in no particular order --  in the famous street language of Delhi. With multiple references to the sisters and mothers of people I didn't know, in ways, that I wouldn't call too kind. So, I assumed that these were special people -- with special needs for special tea. And by now, I was not sure if I really wanted a cup of the special tea.

After I finished my cup, I tried to poke Mr. Pundit again. One last time. So, I asked him about the difference between the common tea and the special tea.

"Pundit jee, hamara desh to aam aadmion ka desh hai,  phir aap khas chai kyon bechte hain? (Mr. Pundit, ours is a country of common people, then, why do you sell special tea?)"

Without batting an eyelid, the reticent Mr. Pundit said, "Yeh Dehli hai saab, yahan bahut khas aadmi rahte hain. (Sir, this is Delhi. A lot of special people live here)."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Re-roasting the peanuts

Since I started writing on this blog, many months have passed. It has been a delightful experience to find that there are many out there, who like my style of writing, and the way I like to express my thoughts. I have also greatly enjoyed reading the comments on my blog -- the readers have been extremely supportive, and I consider it an honor to have such a diverse and opinionated group of people, who visit this blog on a regular basis.

When I wrote my first post,  my intent was to write about the things that I like, and the things that I miss about an India, that seems to have moved on. The new and "resurgent" India, that I see around me, is quite different from the one that I miss. But, somewhere along the line, I started writing more about politics, and less about the things that I like.

I recently received an absolute gem of a comment from an anonymous reader. It seems that he (or she) likes my writing, but feels that I shouldn't be writing about petty politics. I couldn't agree more. I have seen that as one starts writing about the stories in the news, one finds a lot of things to write about. And politics, seems to make news, every few seconds. Eventually, writing gets quite overwhelming, and it does not provide the satisfaction one looks for. So, I have realized that writing about politics, is not something that I enjoy.

Thanks to a well-meaning reader, I will get back to doing something that I like to do. Write about things on The Peanut Express, that give me joy. And perhaps, to a lot of my readers.

So, no more politics. Sit tight my fellow campers, it is time to re-roast the peanuts!